The story of a game is one of its most important aspects. Some games use it as a selling point, while others use it to accent the rest of the experience. If a game is going to focus on its story to succeed, it needs to deliver that story carefully to be effective. Some games seem to get caught up in the idea of a grandiose story and commit too much into it, which causes as many problems as if the game had an underdeveloped one. A game doesn’t need to explain the details behind story elements. Successfully explaining the concept is more important than providing the specifics.
A well-designed plot shouldn’t require knowledge outside of the game to understand. Anything more than this already threatens to lose some of the player bases. Even if games parody real-life events, they need to provide enough detail in-game to make the unaware player understand. I don’t need to know what Facebook is to understand that Lifeinvader is a successful social media platform in GTA V. The concept of Lifeinvader is simple to understand, so the game wastes no time introducing it to me.
If GTA V had tried to explain the specifics of Lifeinvader to me, the concept would not have worked as well. Time devoted towards educating the player about the story’s details is precious time not used productively. Some may argue that it combats the threat of underdevelopment, but underdevelopment isn’t too bad. A meaningless story has a neutral effect on the game experience, neither offering nor detracting anything. I’ve been disappointed by a game’s story before, but I’ve never felt like my whole experience was ruined because an idea was not developed enough.
The attention to specifics becomes especially problematic when the concept is “unexplainable.” If I am playing a science fiction game, it is impossible for the game’s “science” to make sense in a real-world context. When I am forced to think, in vain, about this abstract, incorrect concept, part of my focus is prevented from enjoying the experience. An unnecessary explanation is a perfect distraction, essentially.
I think Bioshock: Infinite is a good example of a game that indulged too much into specifics. The main story of the game is based on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In an age where people joke about the absurdity of needing to know theoretical physics before understanding certain media, I feel safe in saying that the average person does not know this specific interpretation. A simple explanation of the theory before unveiling the ending would have been enough, but instead, it wove a detailed lesson into the finale. This only worked to worsen the issue of wasted time that detailed explanations already create.
The teaching was largely a waste of time since there was no room for digestion. An aspect of the theory is given to the player, but then the finale immediately continues. There’s no room to process the information, and something like quantum mechanics needs time to be processed. The teaching sessions also worked to bring down the finale. Instead of one long, uninterrupted stretch of story, the player receives a segmented plot. Tension isn’t allowed to build because of the teaching disruptions, which prevents the finale from living up to its potential. None of this would have been a problem had the concept alone been given.
On the other hand, Jak II is an example of a game that didn’t explain a core concept but didn’t have to. Dark Eco is a critical concept in this game, both for gameplay and story reasons. In the opening cutscene, the main character, Jak, undergoes a medical procedure which allows him to assimilate Dark Eco in small doses to use later. I, as the player, didn’t get an explanation of Dark Eco using the Grand Unified Theory, and I do not know what the details of the medical procedure were that allow Jak to use small quantities. That doesn’t matter, though. I understand that this medical procedure is why Jak has special interactions with Dark Eco, and I now possess everything I need to know to understand a concept exclusive to this game series.
At its core, the story of a game is supposed to propel the game experience forward. If a game gets bogged down by its story, it had a fundamental flaw. The way I see stories weighing themselves down is the overcommitment I’ve argued against. A game’s story can be compelling without being meticulously detailed. Thinking back over the list of games I’ve played, I can’t properly give a detailed explanation for many of their concepts. Yet, I still think of many of these games quite fondly.